I lived in Germany for several years while in grade school and during those years our Christmas celebrations included the European custom of St. Nicholas day. On the eve of December 6, we stuffed our shoes with straw and placed them outside the door. In the morning the straw was gone (eaten by St. Nicholas’s horse), and we eagerly inspected the shoes for treats. I seem to remember a few switches among the candy I received from St. Nicholas, to remind me that he knew about my lapses in good behavior.
Everybody’s patron saint
The Greek Orthodox Church made Nicholas a saint, countless holy icons depict his image, and it is said that every city in Russia has a St. Nicholas church. He is the national saint of two countries, Greece and Russia, and is considered patron saint of just about everything, because so many feel a connection to his miraculous life. Nicholas’ followers called him, the “Wondermaker.” In Greek his name means, “People’s Victor.”
Nicholas was born between 255 and 270 AD, in Patara, Lycia; a city in the sunny eastern Mediterranean near the coast of what is now Turkey. An only child, Nicholas was born to devout parents who died while he was a youth. He inherited enough wealth to make his life comfortable and secure, but chose to give away his fortune and courageously follow Christ’s teachings by serving others.
These were dark times for Christians in the Roman Empire—brutal persecutions had continued for generations and showed no sign of stopping. Nicholas was out among his people, helping in any way he could, without desire for power or position. The red bishop’s robes by which he is known were laid upon him unexpectedly, by divine will, not by ambition.
Ordained by God
Nicholas had returned to Myra, the capital city of Lycia, after a pilgrimage, and went to the church to give thanks for a safe voyage. He was unaware that Myra’s bishop had died and the clergymen were gathered in prayer to choose the successor. One of the priests had a vision telling him the first man to enter the church, who would be called Nicholas, would be the next bishop. Nicholas always spent the hours after midnight in prayer and arrived at the church early. He was greeted by the clergyman who asked his name. Nicholas replied, “My name is Nicholas and I am your humble servant.” With these words, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra.
As bishop, Nicholas served the people of Myra with extraordinary courage, humility and compassion. The tales of his miraculous interventions to save the unjustly accused, guide ships to safe harbor, protect children, feed the hungry and stand up for his faith show us a picture of a hero, a saint with power, vision and determination unlike any ordinary man.
Since he was a bishop, Nicholas was unable to escape the hand of the Romans. He was imprisoned with so many others, and endured untold sufferings, but he never surrendered his faith or courage. He survived until Emperor Constantine came to power and was converted to Christianity. Nicholas was released, returned to Myra, and led his people another 30 years.
Miracles and divine power
Some time after his release from prison, Nicholas intervened for three Roman imperial officers condemned to die. These were Roman soldiers, not poor farmers, but he knew they were falsely accused and appeared to the emperor in a dream to demand their safe release. The emperor was convinced and released the officers the next morning.
When famine spread through the land, Nicholas heard of several ships in the harbor with grain. The sailors would not give up their precious cargo for fear of punishment if they arrived at their destination without it. Nicholas assured them the owner would not find the measure short if they sold the shipment. Moved by his divine power, the sailors sold the grain. When they reached their home port, miraculously, their cargo holds were once again full.
Saint Nicholas was buried in Myra, but his remains were taken to Bari, Italy in 1087 during the Crusades. They remain there today. The stories of his life were carried across the continents by crusaders and pilgrims, becoming part of folklore far into the north. The Dutch carried them to New Amsterdam (now New York).
Changing calendars and church politics shifted gift-giving customs from his saint’s day, December 6, to Christmas day. As centuries passed, his name was translated and adapted into many variations, including Sinterklaes, der Niklas, Kris Kringle, St. Nick, and Santa Claus, whose red robe is an echo of the red robe of the Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, man of God.